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'Hip' religious sign stirs controversy

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Since May of this year, when Lisa Ison -- owner of Harold's Barbecue in Jonesboro -- lost her cousin in a fatal car accident, she has dedicated her life to God.

"She was here one day, and then she wasn't, and it made me rethink my life," said Ison. She started attending church on a regular basis and decided to use the sign over the restaurant she purchased from her parents as a way to preach the gospel to others.

About every two months, Ison said, the store changes the sign to something new and uplifting, which will also catch the eyes of hungry passersby. In the past, the sign has read "Jesus is Lord" and "Thank You Jesus." Last month, Ison decided to let some of her teenage employees change the sign to something that would appeal to the younger crowd.

The employees arranged the letters on the sign to read, "Jesus is our Lord and homeboy," on one side, and "Jesus, that's wuz up" on the other. While meant to be catchy and hip, the sign has prompted several Jonesboro residents to register complaints with Jonesboro City Hall and the Jonesboro Police Department Code Enforcement Division.

Code Enforcement Officer Charles Carpenter said, as of Monday, Jonesboro Police had received about 20 calls concerning the sign, some in favor of it and some wanting the letters removed, or altered not to include the word "homeboy."

"As far as the city's side of it, it would be in compliance, because it's freedom of speech," said Carpenter. "At this point, there are as many people on that side of the fence as this side."

Some Jonesboro residents disagree with the city, however, believing that the sign is belittling the role of Jesus as lord and savior.

"This ain't right," said Sybil Johnson, 68, a retiree of the Nabisco Company, who lives in Forest Park. "I feel they could have put something else up there to refer to God as the high being. It looks like they are slanting him down, calling him a homeboy."

Ison said this isn't the first time her sign has caused controversy. She had received several complaints in the past when she used the Jewish greeting "shalom" on her sign. She said one person called the restaurant on Monday and complained that the new sign sounded "like something a black guy would say."

"I had my language back in the seventies," said Ison. "It would have been 'Jesus is dynamite' back in my day. My [employees] put it up there, because they thought it would be a good outreach for children their age.

"What worked 40 years ago doesn't work today," Ison continued. In order to get younger people to know Christ, "you have to work with something they can identify with. The words are different, but the message is still the same."

The sign was not offensive enough to stop a wave of lunchtime diners from finishing off their barbecue on Monday.

Joe Hellinger, an environmental contractor in Morrow, who has been eating at Harold's since 1991, said he didn't mind the sign.

"It doesn't mean that Jesus is black or Jesus is a gangster," said Hellinger. "It just means brother or friend. I have a daughter, who is young, and they run around saying that stuff. Would Jesus be offended? I don't think so."

William Roman, a Vietnam War veteran, said he doesn't plan to stop coming to Harold's because of the sign.

"We were all brothers in 'Nam," said Roman. "I call people homeboy at the VA [hospital]. It don't mean nothing to me ... we're just homeboys.

"To me, that's just ridiculous going to City Hall for that," Roman continued. "I think that's going a little too far."

Ison said the store has started a petition for people who are in support of the sign, and said she doesn't plan to take it down until she is ready to.

"I feel like there is an old Grinch out there trying to steal my Christmas," she said. "I'm not going to take it down because a few people don't like what I have to say."